Impressions of “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?: With A Short Discourse on Hell,” by Hans Urs Von Balthasar
Is it acceptable for a Catholic to hope that all men will one day enter heaven?
Bishop Robert Barron not only wrote the forward for Dare We Hope, he also wrote an excellent blog post summarizing the book’s answer: yes.
Catholic doctrine is that Hell exists, but yet the Church has never claimed to know if any human being is actually in Hell. When the Church says that Hell exists, it means that the definitive rejection of God’s love is a real possibility. “Hell” or “Gehenna” are spatial metaphors for the lonely and sad condition of having definitively refused the offer of the divine life. But is there anyone in this state of being? We don’t know for sure. We are in fact permitted to hope and to pray that all people will finally surrender to the alluring beauty of God’s grace.
Think of God’s life as a party to which everyone is invited, and think of Hell as the sullen corner into which someone who resolutely refuses to join the fun has sadly slunk. What this image helps us to understand is that language which suggests that God “sends” people to Hell is misleading. As C.S. Lewis put it so memorably: the door that closes one into Hell (if there is anyone there) is locked from the inside not from the outside. The existence of Hell as a real possibility is a corollary of two more fundamental convictions, namely, that God is love and that human beings are free. The divine love, freely rejected, results in suffering. And yet, we may, indeed we should, hope that God’s grace will, in the end, wear down the even the most recalcitrant sinner.
But the counter-argument seem pretty clear, and was put forward by Christ Himself:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
The counter-counter-argues is that Christ speaks of punishment, which includes purgatory, and the danger of Hell, which could still exist even if no one actually goes there.
But is that a hope, and not just wishful thinking?
On social media Bishop Barron has posted a video in favor of the hope that all men may be saved:
While Taylor Marshall, author of The Crucified Rabbi, has an opposing view
So – dare we hope that all men be saved?
The Definition of Hope
For, as we have already stated (I-II:40:1), when we were treating of the passion of hope, the object of hope is a future good, difficult but possible to obtain.
Summa Theologica, II.ii.17
And Thomas’s view that hope is a virtue:
Wherefore, in so far as we hope for anything as being possible to us by means of the Divine assistance, our hope attains God Himself, on Whose help it leans. It is therefore evident that hope is a virtue, since it causes a human act to be good and to attain its due rule.
Balthasar does not claim that all men will go to heaven. Indeed, he urges the spiritually safest position is to consider oneself even more in danger of judgment than Judas, of whom Jesus said. You do not know what weaknesses were in his heart, but you should know your own betrayals of Christ very well:
The Son of Man indeed goes just as it is written of Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.”
Then Judas, who was betraying Him, answered and said, “Rabbi, is it I?”
He said to him, “You have said it.”
Yet Paul writes of the Father’s desire for “all,” and wonders how easily the Father would let His purpose be frustrated by our inclination, all other things being equal, to fail in the faith:
For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.
And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.
Continuing this theme, it what may have been the darkest period of his ministry, Paul writes:
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.
On the “dispensation of the fullness of time,” Balthasar wonders — or hopes — if perhaps God does not let “all other things be equal.” For instance, might He order things such that even a soul inclined to sin would be saved from temptation and brought to repentance and purification.
Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The hope that Balthasar seems in the Bible is not a “sure hope” — it is not knowledge — that we are all saved. But that God is willing to lead our free will, using tricks and punishments, to give Christ his due:
Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
The Doctors of the Church
Many Saints have had visions of Hell, and great teachers have lectured about who is in there. Balthasar hopes that these visions, by showing us that saints in this world would be willing to atone for the sins of even the damned, show us that Christ would do also. There surely is a Hell, so from the reactions of saints do we see an image of God’s view?
How could I ever reconcile myself, Lord, to the prospect that a single one of those whom, like me, you have created in your image and likeness should become lost and slip from your hands? No, in absolutely no case do I want to see a single one of my brethren meet with ruin, not a single one of those, through their like birth, are one with me by nature and by grace. I want them all to be wrested from the grasp of the ancient enemy, so that they all become yours to the honor and greater glorification of your name.
St Catherine of Sienna, Dialogues
And while the Lord teaches that wide is the gate that leads to destruction, perhaps actually entering destruction is harder than that:
“A long time after the Lord had already granted me many of the favors I’ve mentioned and other very lofty ones, while I was in prayer one day, I suddenly found that, without knowing how, I had seemingly been put in hell. I understood that the Lord wanted me to see the place the devils had prepared there for me and which I merited because of my sins. This experience took place within the shortest space of time, but even were I to live for many years I think it would be impossible for me to forget it. The entrance it seems to me was similar to a very long and narrow alleyway, like an oven, low and dark and confined; the floor seemed to me to consist of dirty, muddy water emitting foul stench and swarming with putrid vermin. At the end of the alleyway a hole that looked like a small cupboard was hollowed out in the wall; there I found I was placed in a cramped condition. All of this was delightful to see in comparison with what I felt there. What I have described can hardly be exaggerated.
“What I felt, it seems to me, cannot even begin to be exaggerated; nor can it be understood. I experienced a fire in the soul that I don’t know how I could describe. The bodily pains were so unbearable that though I had suffered excruciating ones in this life and according to what doctors say, the worst that can be suffered on earth for all my nerves were shrunken when I was paralyzed, plus many other sufferings of many kinds that I endured and even some as I said, caused by the devil, these were all nothing in comparison with the ones I experienced there. I saw furthermore that they would go on without end and without ever ceasing. This, however, was nothing next to the soul’s agonizing: a constriction, a suffocation, an affliction so keenly felt and with such a despairing and tormenting unhappiness that I don’t know how to word it strongly enough. To say the experience is as though the soul were continually being wrested from the body would be insufficient, for it would make you think somebody else is taking away the life, whereas here it is the soul itself that tears itself in pieces. The fact is that I don’t know how to give a sufficiently powerful description of that interior fire and that despair, coming in addition to such extreme torments and pains. I didn’t see who inflicted them on me, but, as it seemed to me, I felt myself burning and crumbling; and I repeat the worst was that interior fire and despair.
St Theresa of Avila, Collected Works
There’s something going on with all these opposite statements, these theological dialectics. We’re in a confusing space. Balthasar’s reaction to this confusion is hope that all men be saved:
Spare in Thy mercy, and take not vengeance in Thy justice. For although it be hard to understand how Thy mercy is not parted from Thy justice; yet is it necessary to believe that it is not at enmity with Thy justice, that it floweth from Thy goodness, that it is not without justice, nay in truth accordeth with Thy justice. For if Thou art merciful only because Thou art supremely good, and art supremely good only because Thou art supremely just: therefore art Thou in truth merciful because Thou art supremely just. Help me, O just and merciful God, for I seek Thy light. Help me, that I may understand what I say!
Anselm of Canterbury. Prologion, IX
On the Pope and Hannibal Lecter
My greatest doubts to Balthasar’s “hope” comes from free will. What if an individual, consciously, rationally, and in full possession of his spirits, chooses damnation?
Balthasar cites future Pope Benedict XVI to this point:
“Christ inflicts pure perdition on no one. In himself he is sheer salvation… Perdition is not imposed by him but comes to be wherever a person distances himself from Christ. It comes about whenever someone remains enclosed within himself. Christ’s word, the bearer of the offer of salvation, then lays bare the fact that the person who is lost has himself drawn the dividing line and separated himself from salvation.
Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, pp 205-206
In the back of my mind is the most Satanic characters I’ve encountered in fiction — Hannibal Lector. I don’t mean the movie version, the guy who eats people, which is bad enough! But in the novel, we hear his eternal narration, and his calm, rational statement preferring damnation in Hell, rather than share Heaven with a God who allowed his little sister’s death. Even if we accept that God is very patient in purgatory, and finds some way to call everyone back who falls into it, what of the Lecters of this world?
Balthasar wonders if every “no” is predicated on a “yes” to God. To go back to my example of Hannibal Lecter, his “no” to salvation” comes from his “yes” to his sister. Might we hope that God uses this right, if out of order, love for his image?
Maybe. Maybe that’s enough for “hope.”
Balthasar’s ambiguous views are reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published a few years after Dare We Hope. The relevant portion of the Catechism reads both in ways that imply that most are in Hell:
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”
And that it’s a free choice, from now until the end, to get in, with God having a clearly desired outcome:
God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”
Thus we should all be very aware of our own sinfulness, and view Hell as a personal possibility. As Balthasar writes:
Even if someone could know himself as being in the “certainty” inherent in Christian hope, he still does not know whether he will not transgress against love and thereby also forfeit the certainty of hope. It is therefore indispensable that every individual Christian be confronted, in the greatest seriousness, with the possibility of his becoming lost.
And the Catechism confirms:
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.” CCC 1035-1036
We do not know the how this all ends. We only know how we should pray:
The Church prays that no one should be lost: “Lord, let me never be parted from you.” If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4), and that for him “all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
Hans Urs Von Balthasar is an important figure of the resourcement — going back to the sources — within Catholicism. I’m glad I read an introduction to his work before beginning Dare We Hope. Instead of focusing on the Summa Theologica as the definitive summary of theology, Balthasar uses church Doctors and Fathers, along with a dramatic sense of the text. Balthasar views some contradictory statements as “mysteries” to fall into, rather than problems already solved, and in some ways is more typical of the Orthodox Church than the Catholic Encyclopedia (1917). But Balthasar’s theologically is fundamentally Catholic, with a focus on the importance of purgatory and clear alignment with recent Popes.
So, dare we “hope” that all men be saved? Balthasar’s answer is yes: yes, we may hope, but to do this we must cooperate with God in the one soul we have the most control over: our own.